Wednesday, August 31, 2011


by Walt Staples -

A ping sounded as the red dot appeared at the edge of the plotting board. Meg Nakamura, captain of the tanker Tau Ceti Maru, waited for the A.I. to report the results of the interrogative signal beamed at the target. When “George,” the A.I., continued mute, she tapped the override.

She noticed Uncle Onslow, the ship’s chief engineer, had stopped whistling “Bound for the Reo Granite” under his breath. On the whole, she would have preferred the irritation at the moment. It was not a good thing when Onslow, a normally noisy sort, suddenly became quiet. She turned to see him watching the plot from the supercargo’s seat, his puzzle forgotten. “What do you make of it, Unc?”

He continued to watch the slow progress of the red dot thoughtfully. “He be burnin’ reaction mass like it t’weren’t his. At the rate his delta-vee be changin’ positive, he be either military or someone in a big hurry. Up to nay good if he be not answerin’ the interrogative. An honest ship’ll squawk who she be.”

Meg thought. “Comm malfunction?”

Uncle Onslow looked hurt. “Not this end. I tuned the main laser and the auxiliary during the dog watch.”

She looked at him. “What were you doing up then?”

“Dwellin’ on me wicked past.” He waved a hand dismissively and changed the subject, “Methinks maybe ye should pipe that first officer ye like to call “husband” out of his rack.”

As she reached for the general alarm, he leaned over and stopped her hand with a massive paw. “If ye be forgivin’ the impertinence, ma’am, I think there might be time to allow the man to gain his feet like a Christian.”

She grinned at him and reached for the call button.

Chris Nakamura, Meg’s husband and first officer, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and sipped his Wide-Awake tea. “Why is it, just as the dream is getting good, someone always hits the call button?”

“Because you’re indispensible to the Cosmos and spacefarers everywhere.” She asked with a leer, “I trust the dream was about me.”

He yawned. “Oh, yes, everything according to ship’s regs.” He glanced around. “Where’s Onslow?”

“He said something about needing to attend to something or other to do with his cargo.”

“More likely he’s in the hanger bay securing his doll-house furniture tools. It amazes me the things he can make with those sausages he calls fingers.” He thought a moment, then asked, “Honestly, hon, why’d you let him load a cargo we’re hauling for free?”

“Two reasons. Number six bunker was empty this trip and we needed ballast, and it’s Uncle Onslow. Besides, there’s a good market for it.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sand?”

“Silicon—pulverized quartz for making fine glass or, as you say, ‘sand.’ Anyway, I want the old man to be able to put something aside for his retirement.”

“He’s not our uncle,” Chris pointed out.

“Well, he’s somebody’s—” She cut herself short as the bridge hatch dilated.

The bulky engineer strolled to the supercargo’s seat and flopped down with a grunt. “Mick and Sugo have the watch below, so I figures I be seeing how things be up heres in the high-rent district. What be our friend doing?”

Chris answered, “Still gaining and still the strong, silent type. Think we should change orbit, Unc?”

The tall man fingered his beard thoughtfully. “Nay, t’would do nay good. Methinks he gots enough reaction mass to waste, he be catchin’ us nay matter the course change.” The red dot began to pulsate. “Ah, methinks he wants to be neighborly.”

Meg glanced at Chris. “See what he wants.”

Chris tapped the plate on his seat arm. “Unidentified vessel, unidentified vessel, this is Tau Ceti Maru out of Eclectia, identify, please.”

“This is Dog Star Revenge, Calico Jack Bonney commanding.” The voice was booming and scratchy. “Heave to and match orbits. Prepare to be boarded.”

Meg reached over and broke contact. “Calico Jack Bonney? What the heck?”

A moment later, a smaller red dot originated from the Dog Star Revenge and passed close aboard to the tanker. It disappeared as an incandescence flared against the starfield on the forward screen.

“Ah, the requisite shot across our bow. Good to see they be sticking to the script,” Onslow observed in an offhand manner.

Chris asked of no one in particular, “What are we dealing with?”

“Pirates, lad, pirates.” Onslow’s face was grim. “Methinks this might be what happened to the Commerce Antares and the Universe Sheba.”

Meg looked at him in disbelief. “Pirates? In this time and place?”

“Oh, aye, lass.” He nodded. “It be yer cargo they be after, distilled water. It be very hard to check the serial numbers on it. The Commerce be carrying it in carboys and the Universe be a tanker like ourselves.

“Chris, lad, what be the velocity of that shot?”

The blond man jerked, then tapped on his plate. “It’s on your screen.”

The fat man tapped on his own plate. “Well, lad, if ye be subtractin’ the velocity of the ship from the velocity of the shot, ye can make a guess at what sort of a weapon ye face.” He considered the numbers. “Aye, as I thought—railgun.”

Meg spoke from the command seat, “A what?”

“A railgun. A projectile is accelerated down a barrel by a series of magnets. Lets ye get high velocities without the worries of propellants. Alls ye be needin’ is electricity.”

Chris nodded. “Elegant. What kind of projectile do you think?”

Onslow pinched his lower lip in thought. “Methinks they’d not be takin’ the chance of scatterin’ the cargo with an explosion. Nay, solid shot, then.”

Meg looked from one to the other. “Any bright ideas, gentlemen?”

Silence filled the bridge. After a long moment, Onslow broke the loud emptiness. “Methinks I has an idea.”

The other two looked at the chief engineer. “What?” the tanker’s skipper asked.

Uncle Onslow, his face serious, asked a question in reply, “Do ye trust me?”

Meg looked at him for a moment and answered, “Yes. Yes, I do.” Chris nodded.

The old man nodded once. “All right then. The first thing, everybody into environment suits. Second we evacuates the atmosphere. It’ll be less distractin’ without things flappin’ about if we be holed.”

Chris protested, “But there’s nothing loose.”

Onslow grinned at him. “Ye’d be surprised what can come adrift in an explosive decompression.”

Meg asked, “What else?”

He hooked a thumb toward her husband. “This be for Chris to be doin’. Lad, whens I says, ‘now,’ ye revolve the ship 90 degrees around her short axis to starboard.”

“That will put us broadside to them and make us a bigger target,” the younger man pointed out.

“Oh, aye, that it t’will. I’d rather they be hittin’ one of the bunkers than the drive unit. Most people aims at the center of mass. This way, the bridge and engineerin’ spaces be out on the far ends of the target.”

He grinned mischievously. “If ye be excusin’ me, I has some engineerin’ to be doin’.” He took a small tool kit from a pocket and popped open an access panel on the arm of supercargo’s seat.


Meg wrinkled her nose. She looked over at her husband’s environment-suited form. “Husband, dear? Do you know what’s the very first thing you’re going to do after this is settled?

Chris answered in a hopeful voice, “Lay below to our cabin together?”

“Maybe that’s second.” A quiet chuckle reminded them that Uncle Onslow was also on the net. “No, dear, the very first thing you’re doing is changing out the filter on this suit. The stench in here is worse than a Mongolian slit trench.”

Chris’ voice was innocent, “Uh, dear, how would you know to make that comparison?”

“Just do it, Mister,” she said in her command voice.

“Aye, aye, ma’am.”

Onslow’s voice cut across, “Chris, stand by.”

“Standing by.”

Meg began to count to herself. She reached 23 when Onslow said, “Now!”

The Tau Ceti Maru spun on her short axis, putting herself broadside to her pursuer. The chief engineer tapped the plate on his seat arm once.

Chris, startled, cried, “We’re beginning to revolve to starboard more.”

Uncle Onslow’s voice was reassuring. “It be okay, lad. Just put us back into position.”

Meg spoke up, “What now?”

“Wait for it, and watch the plot.”

As they watched, a blue glob appeared next to the blue dot at the center of the plotting board representing the tanker. It seemed to slowly move back towards the pirate’s red dot. The red dot moved into the glob and out the other side.

“What’s that?” Meg’s voice was strained.

“Five thousand tons of glass-grade silicon. I purged bunker six. That be why we started to revolve again. Reaction to the sand squirtin’ out the purge valve.” He gave a gusty sigh. “Okay, try to raise the Revenge , if ye please.”

Chris called, “Dog Star Revenge, Dog Star Revenge, do you copy?” His only answer was the whispers of interstellar space. He began again, “Dog Star Revenge, Dog Star—“

“Leave it, lad,” Uncle Onslow interrupted him. “They’ll nay answer.”

Meg asked, “Why?”

“Turn the optical telescope aft.” Onslow’s voice was tired.

Husband and wife gasped. A wreck pursued them. The forward section, probably the bridge, was slagged. There was no sign of either sensor or communication arrays. Fiberglass shreds showed where reaction mass tanks once encircled the hull. No blue-white plume of reaction showed from the drives.

After a moment of stunned silence, Chris asked, “What happened to them?”

Onslow rubbed his face and slumped in the supercargo’s seat. “Are ye familiar with a sandblaster, Lad?”

“Yeah, sure.” Chris looked at the old man curiously.

The chief engineer’s voice was musing as he continued. “Well, if ye was to increase the velocity of the sand hittin’ a piece of something it would stands to reason it’d take off more material, right?”

Chris nodded.

The other looked down at his unconsciously clenched hands. “Think about the effect of a cloud of sand hittin’ at the speed the Revenge was doin’—what, about one-tenth light?” He shook his head and whispered almost to himself, “Nay a pretty picture.”

“Should we attempt rescue?” someone asked in a hushed voice.

There was a long pause, then Onslow answered, “Nay. We’ve not enough reaction mass to catch her and match orbits—beggin’ yer pardon, captain.”

Meg broke the silence. “Where are they headed?”

Chris referred to his navigation array. “Alnitak. In Orion’s belt. They’ll reach there in—“

Uncle Onslow cut him off. “There be nay need, lad.”

Monday, August 29, 2011


by Greg Mitchell -

“Somebody help! We need help over here!”

Trebs was growing pale, his lips turning purple, his skin sallow and thin. Dressler struggled under the other man’s weight, barely able to breathe after their long journey. After the beetle attacked out on the field, Dressler had done his best to make a tourniquet for Trebs’ pierced thigh, but without medical attention his co-hunter was going to die.

“We need a doctor!” Dressler shouted once more.

“No, Daddy…” Trebs mumbled through cracked lips. “It’s too dark, Dad…too dark…”

By time they reached the infirmary tent back at camp, another sand storm had picked up. Waves of hard grit felt like needles on Dressler’s face. He had his goggles on, his kerchief over his face, but the heat was blistering. Trebs slipped in and out of hysteria, sometimes whimpering like a child, other times shouting at the air, cursing his father.

Medics hurried out of the tent, fighting against the high winds to reach Trebs.

“He got hit by a bug,” Dressler shouted over nature’s roar. “He’s lost a lot of blood. He’s delirious.”

Two strong medics, decked in thick coats, caps, and goggles, hefted Trebs between them and dragged him toward the tent. Dressler followed, feeling like he’d just lost a hundred and seventy pounds. His arms tingled as he moved them again, and he looked down to see he was covered in Trebs’ blood.

Dressler pushed his way through the tent, instantly relieved of Eclectia’s cruelty. His hearing returned, his breathing slowed, and he removed his goggles and facemask. Surgeons apprised themselves of Trebs’ condition, cutting away his pants and stripping them off of him with a wet slap. Dressler glimpsed the wound, pumping blood like a volcano. Doctors hurried to stop the bleeding, beginning their operation.

“You’re going to have to leave,” one of the doctors ordered Dressler. He obliged, feeling unwanted, and retreated back into the storm.

Against the harsh winds, he crossed the camp to another, larger tent. Entering, he saw other dirtied bug hunters eating, drinking, laughing. Dressler dragged himself through the slop line, craving a little R&R at Maddie’s Pub back in town, but the mess tent would have to do. Nobody said anything to him as he gathered his plate of goop and found a seat at a nearly vacant table. Nobody knew what he’d just been through, the attack, that Trebs was fighting for his life.

He and Trebs weren’t friends, not in the traditional sense. He knew almost everything about the man, but that came from years together chasing beetles for meat. Alone out in the sands, there was little to do but talk. Get to know one another.

Except, Dressler hadn’t told Trebs about Edilyn. He’d not told many, except his sister. Dressler’s daughter Edilyn was diagnosed three weeks ago with ash lung. Only three Foundings old and the “experts” had given her two to six months to live. Edilyn was holding up, putting on a brave face for her dad, or perhaps she didn’t realize what she was facing. Only a child, she didn’t know the things she’d miss—school, growing up, making friends, falling in love, starting a family. Common human experiences that nearly everyone took for granted, but Edilyn would never have that chance. Dressler knew that even after she was gone, he’d celebrate every birthday, imagine every milestone that would have come. He’d continue to think about her life and what it could’ve—should’ve— been, long after she’d stopped living it.

It was his curse to bear.

One other hunter sat along the table from him. They were alone, the two of them. Jax was a strange one. He seemed different than the others. Quiet, withdrawn, like he was always thinking about something. The other hunters had given him a wide berth ever since his recent arrival, whispering about where he came from or who he was before he became a hunter. Most of Dressler’s ilk was born into this trade, learning to use a spear and rifle as soon as they could pull a pacifier out of their mouths. It was their culture—the mark of true manhood. Bug hunters took great pride in their work, telling stories of daring adventures against bug-kind. They were a loud, conceited sort, and Dressler might have joined with them not too long ago. He would have laughed and drank and shared wild tales, but Edilyn…

“Hey,” Jax spoke, breaking Dressler’s thoughts. Dressler regarded the other man, surprised. Jax’s face was pensive, his tone soft but distant. “You okay?”

Dressler remembered he was painted with blood—both human red and bug yellow. But he wasn’t the confiding type. “Yeah.”

Jax gave him a doubtful look then resumed his fabled deep thinking, continuing to eat. Dressler stared at the mound of nutritional slush on his plate, but had a hard time bringing himself to consume it. He thought of Trebs, of Edilyn, of his life on this ruined rock, and held his face in his hands.

“Excuse me,” a timid voice interrupted.

Dressler saw one of the camp nurses standing over him, her gown splattered with blood. It was then that Dressler realized how quiet the mess hall had grown all of a sudden, as everyone watched her and, by proxy, him. The nurse wrung her hands and Dressler prepared himself for the news that Trebs was dead. He’d have to tell the man’s family.

“Your friend wants to speak with you,” the nurse said, biting her lip. Her face was a mix of worry and fear.

Dressler stood. “He’s alive?”

She nodded. “We’ll talk more…in private.”

The nurse left him there, throwing conspiratorial glances over her shoulder. The men watched Dressler, mumbling gossip amongst themselves. Dressler felt out of place and looked to Jax for support, though he had no idea why. At last, he followed the nurse outside. She waited for him at the side of the tent, away from the hunters. The storm had subsided now, the breeze caressing the desert sands.

Dressler approached the woman, and she whispered, “He’s…he’s healed.”

“Okay,” Dressler said. “I’m glad the doctors were able to get to him in time.”

“No,” she corrected. “He’s healed. The wound is gone. It’s like he was never attacked.”

Dressler’s mind went blank. “I…I don’t understand. He lost so much blood.”

“He died on the operating table and then he just…woke up. The wound closed up on its own. There’s not even a scar. Not a scratch.”

“How is that possible?”

The nurse leveled her eyes at him. They were filled with a quiet terror. “It’s not. But…he wants to speak with you.”

At once, Dressler tromped across camp, headed for the infirmary. With force he pushed open the front flap, and gasped. Trebs was in a gown, sitting up on the bed, the medical staff pressed to one wall of the tent, talking heatedly, their voices low. Trebs turned to Dressler and smiled.

“Hey, Dress.”

Doctors and nurses halted in their debate, eyeing the visitor. Dressler wanted to talk to them, to find out what had happened, but Trebs was focused on him, his face passive and full of light.

“Hey…Trebs,” Dressler greeted awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Hesitant, he walked closer to the hunter on the cot. “They, uh, they said you wanted to talk to me.”

“Not me,” Trebs chuckled softly. “Through me, but it’s someone else who has something to say. Come here.” He lifted his chin towards the professionals huddling in the corner. “It’s not for them.”

Dressler did as requested, a foreboding dread gnawing at his gut. As he drew near, Trebs leaned forward, excited. “I saw them, man.”


“The angels.”

Dressler shook his head. “No.”

“Yes. I was dead. I was in the black…Then one of them came to me, glowing and warm. He, it, whatever, said that he would send me back. He’d heal me. He said I had good to do in my life. Hah, can you believe that? My old man,” Trebs trailed off, his eyes glistening with tears. “…he never thought I’d ever be any good…but I’ve got work to do, the angel said. And the first thing to do is talk to you.”

Dressler exhaled, realizing he’d been holding his breath. “Why me?”

Trebs looked to the floor. “Is, uh…is something wrong with Edilyn?”

Dressler felt as though a weight had slammed into his stomach, punching out his breath. “What?”

“The angel told me. He knows she’s sick, man. She’s dying. Why didn’t you tell me?”


“It doesn’t matter. The angel wants to help. He said that he knows your kid believes and that ‘believers get rewarded’.”

Feeling faint, Dressler braced himself on the cot, trembling.

“You gotta go down there, though,” Trebs said. “I’m just the messenger. He said he can help you, but you’ve got to go down there. Under the water.”

Dressler wanted to protest. Why? How? The angel had healed Trebs—brought him back from the dead—from all these kilometers away. Why did Dressler have to brave the waters in order for Edilyn to be saved? It wasn’t fair. “Why can’t he heal her like he did you?”

Trebs shrugged. “I don’t know, Dress. I should’ve asked, but I was so grateful. You don’t know what it’s like when you’re around those guys. I felt it, man. It was like…joy. Pure joy. But you’ve gotta go to him.”

Dressler considered for a long moment, his mind filled with doubt, confusion, but most of all, hope. He spotted the doctors waiting on him, to hear his decision, and he would not keep them waiting any longer.

“Yeah. Okay. Where do I start?”

Friday, August 26, 2011

Cafeteria Duty

by Holly Heisey -

Hoepi ladled a slap of green algae slosh on another cracked plastic tray and watched another miner’s nose wrinkle in disgust. If the powers that be could afford to hold a hundred and twenty-nine miners in a station tethered to the coolest spot on one half of Sheba…well. They could afford to give those miners decent meals. And hire a cook, for once. She was stuck with cafeteria duty.

A rumble of voices at the door made her look up, not because they were loud or male but because she recognized the first and her hand faltered just a beat on the ladle.

“Hey!” One-armed Micki, her latest victim in the slop line, jumped back to avoid getting green slosh on his coveralls.

Hoepi turned back to the slop line and stared to blush, then thought better of it. “You just watch yourself, Micki.” Which made no sense, so she turned her back and stirred the steaming pot of proto-meatballs with a vigor.


She whirled. Tennant. She met his eyes for the briefest flicker.

“Hey, Hoepi.”

He knew her name.

She shook her head. Yeah, idiot, of course he knows your name. You only mine with him every second five-day.

She brushed dark hair from her eyes. “Yeah, what do you want?”

Tennant held up his tray and gave her a weary, flashing grin. “Some puke-my-guts special with a side of almost-ham.” He patted his flat stomach. “Worked hard today.”

Hoepi flustered and dumped green slosh and proto-meatballs in a mess on his tray. He turned to the tables…then stopped.

“Hey Hoepi. Was gonna play handball later in the tank. Want to?”

She opened her mouth. He turned more fully, an impish smile on his cracked lips. “Say yes.”

She nodded.

“Good enough!” He flopped down at a table and promptly fell into terse conversation with another knot of miners.

Hoepi stepped back from the slop line. A grin stretched her mouth from ear to ear.

“Hey, Hoepi!”

She turned to the next in line and scowled at him. “What?”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


by Grace Bridges -

“Sing us a song, Ave!” The clutch of four-year-olds stared at her with demanding eyes, clustering around their ringleader, a tiny girl with blue eyes and golden hair wrapped in a ragged, patched spider-wool blanket.

Ave adjusted her position sitting against the wall, and forced a grin. “What song do you want to hear?”

Felicia frowned, considering. “The one about Avenir, please.” The other little ones nodded.

Ave smiled, for real this time. They always picked that one. She began to hum, and the children hunkered down in their bedrolls. Finally she sang it out, her voice breaking at “Be strong, Avenir Eclectia.”

The words of the song echoed oddly from the conduits of the service corridor. Eyes drooped closed, faces grew slack, breathing grew calm. Ave sang the song through twice more, letting it comfort the inner ache that threatened to burst forth and overcome her just as ruthlessly as a sudden vacuum leak. She must be parent to these children and the rest, even though she had no family herself, knew nothing of parenting. Be strong…it was her only answer, even when she had no more strength.

What must it be like to have a father? A mother? Longing rushed up from a secret place within her, and her face crumpled suddenly. After a lengthy moment, she sighed and flicked a tear from her eye. It was no use wishing for what could not be.

“Don’t cry, Ave.” Felicia’s small hand found its way into hers, and she snuggled against Ave’s shoulder.

Ave kissed the top of the golden head and closed her eyes in thankfulness.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Enya’s Smile

by Frank Creed -

Motors hummed and chugged in the dim bowels of Avenir station where they kept the cyborgs. Our taskmaster had just programmed the last unit for sleep, walked down the rows of steel double bunks, and closed the door behind him.

Must sleep. I grabbed the jar from beneath my pillow and slid down from my bunk. I knelt on the cold metal floor next to Enya’s bed where I worked the smelly white grease into her knee, hip, elbow and shoulder.

Her dead eyes fixed on the underside of my bunk above her.

“Enya? Wife, why don’t you look at me?” I brushed grey hair from her forehead with my clean hand.

Her eyeballs flicked toward me, and her lips barely parted as she breathed my name, “Robear…” She smiled—a rare smile that reached all the way to her eyes. In that moment, she knew me. This is why I kept killing time with my power mop and cleansing cloths day after day. Smiling eyes.

I smiled back, and shuffled around to the other side of her bunk to attack the arthritis in her joints with more of the white grease. Must sleep.

Her eyes returned to my bunk above her, a wan smile still playing on her lips. Implanting chips and wires in our brains affected her far more than it did me. As long as we remained useful we would be kept in service. What law we had broken to receive such a fate, I no longer remembered. I could only recall my programming and Enya. My programming told me we deserved this and it was just.

“Your knees are bruised. You hand-polished floors all day, didn’t you?”

No response. The smile had faded. She was gone again.

Must sleep. I spun the lid back on the jar and climbed back up into my bunk. Wiping my greasy hand on my chest, I closed my eyes and thought of Enya’s smile.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Ultimate Trophy

by Deborah Cullins Smith -

Jacian slipped into the bulky protective gear for his trek into the world beyond Zirconia’s shell. His heart pounded and his blood sang with anticipation of the venture before him. Cassie had bought that sappy line about making contact—she bought it hook, line, and sinker, as the old earth saying went. If all went well, she wouldn’t know his true intentions until it was too late. He smirked as he snapped and zipped his way into layer after layer of the pressurized gear that would enable him to walk on the floor of the ocean.

Cassie stuck her head in the changing room.

“Are you ready, Jace? We’ve got to hurry if you’re going to make it out there and back before the first shift arrives.”

Cassie had arranged to work this midnight shift alone, but it would only be seven hours before her relief crew started showing up. She had insisted he must be back—and gone—well before anyone else could find him in this restricted area.

“Yeah, Cassie,” he said, forcing that beguiling sweetness into his voice, even as he secured a short harpoon and a hunting knife to the side of his air tank. His body faced away from Cassie, so she couldn’t see what he had done. He still needed her to work the control panel and open the exit valves. Once he was beyond the city limit, she wouldn’t be able to stop him. If she called for help, she’d be in trouble for her part in helping him get outside. But she wouldn’t raise the alarm. Jacian had chosen her carefully. He had watched her for several weeks before trying that abortive attempt to sweep her off her feet.

She’ll never know what she missed
, he thought contemptuously.

His thoughts turned to the hunt before him. After all, they were just beasts out there. No matter what the scientists and wizards said.

Jacian thought of the mounted insect heads on the walls of his father’s office. There were huge horned creatures, some with enormous glassy eyes; others sported pincers jutting from armored jaws. His father boasted to his business associates of his hunting prowess, but Jacian knew that his father had never killed in his life. The trophies—and the stories of the hunts—were bought and paid for. His father was a liar—a phony.

But Jacian was going to outdo him. Jacian was going to bring back a trophy for his own wall that would put his father’s collection to shame.

Jacian wanted the head of an angel.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Other Side of the Glass

by Karina Fabian -

The grouchy man in a lab coat looked away from the scanner he was holding and scowled down at her.

"What's she doing here?" he demanded in a grouchy voice.

Grandmother squeezed her hand. "Gerald, this is Trancy. She came with me to see the angels today."

The grouchy man curled up his nose like she smelled weird, but she'd taken her shower. He scolded her grandmother. "This facility is open twenty-five hours a day, thirty days a month--except for two hours every nine days."

"Which is when the biggest groups of angels gather," Grandmother replied. "This is when they're their most interesting."

"She can watch them on the vids like everyone else."

"She won't bother anyone."

Trancy smiled. She knew that tone. No one said "no" when Grandma used that tone.

And neither did Mr. Grouchy. "She'd better not." He sniffed in her direction, then turned away.

She decided she didn't like him.

Nonetheless, she did her very best to stay quietly at Grandmother's side while she helped the other researchers set up. Now and then, Grandma explained what they were doing, and how elusive the inhabitants of Eclectia's waters had been.

"Elusive?" Trancy rolled the word on her tongue.

"We don’t see them much," Grandmother defined.

"Except for times like these!" one man said cheerfully and bent down to point at one end of the window.

She watched the Angels, mesmerized, as the researchers started their observations.

"Looks like a school of thirty--a little bigger than lately, but not unusually so. Juveniles and adults."

"I still think we're on the path to some kind of maturation grounds."

"Then why do they stop? Every time?"

"We're a threat."

"We've not done anything to the Angels. No, we're just a curiosity--there! Look! The adult directs their attention to us."

"Which holds to my theory that they are training them to recognize us as a threat. See that one, racing from one end of the window to another? Obviously a territorial behavior. Five to one, one of them will press their mouth to the tank in some kind of display! In ten…nine…"

A moment later, credit chips passed hands. The same thing happened again as someone predicted that one would lash its tail against the tank.

But something else caught Trancy's eye.

"Grandma, we've seen that one before!" She pointed to one angel, whose fins had delicate yellow piping, lingering a ways from the rest.

Grandmother followed her gaze. "Why, I think we have--but not in a school."

Mr. Grouchy growled. "You just want to kill my migration theory! Well, we've got it recorded; we'll check. They're moving on to Crendal's group now.

"Bye!" Trancy waved.

The entire group gasped as the yellow-striped Angel waved back.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Academic Question: Rising Expectation

by Walt Staples -

“Pomphee, one would begin to think you like me.” Doctor Professor Erschreckendmann—aka: “Doctor E”—smiled his special smile at the department head.

The other shuddered. “Perish the thought. I only associate with you when I must.”

The little man almost purred as he preened the huge mustache that hid most of his lower face. “Excellent. Good, honest hatred I can work with. Now, to what do I owe your rather dubious attentions?”

The department head placed the tips of his fingers together on the large desk he kept between himself and the alchemy instructor. “We have a small problem.”

“You mean you have a small problem,” Doctor E cut in.

“No, we. The matter in question is an embarrassment to the school—you, me, and especially the instructor involved.”

“And which instructor might this be?”


Doctor E furrowed his brow. “Hortel? That tall broom straw in Advanced Conjurment?”

“The same.”

The little man drew his abundant eyebrows down. A glint of green played in their shadows. “And what, pray tell, could anyone that innocent do that would embarrass so august a body as this?”

“He rises.”

One eyebrow rose slightly. “So? You are afraid he will supplant you? I don’t buy it. You have your very own form of fecklessness. Pomphee, you’re irreplaceable.”

“Thank you for your vote of confidence,” the department head replied drily. “No, the problem is that young Hortel actually rises. He levitates. And at the wrong time.”

“And there is a ‘right’ time?”

Pomphee sighed. “Must you?” He continued, “If he could control it, fine and good. But he tends to cause a distraction. There we are at the interfaith breakfast this morning and he just lifts-off.”

Doctor E leaned back in his chair. “So what’s your real interest? He’s not in the Materials Department.”

The other was silent for a moment, looking down at his interlaced fingers. Continuing to look down, he spoke haltingly, “I like him. He has no ax to grind, he takes no sides, stabs no one in the back, and is interested only in training the students. I don’t want to see him destroyed.”

The little man across the table gazed off into space. “His nickname through the wards was ‘Little Friend of all the World…’”


“Hmm? Oh. Kipling. Before your time.” He leaned forward, the green lights glowing beneath his eyebrows. “What precisely has set the cat among your pigeons, Pomphee?”

“Bishop Guash is coming for the dedication of the chapel annex and I’m afraid Hortel will cause a scene.”

The alchemy instructor nodded. “A large and rather fat cat indeed—or perhaps tiger would be closer. All right, I’ll see to it.”

Pomphee looked at him suspiciously. “That’s all? No stalk to the door? No cutting remark? Why?”

Doctor E grunted as he rose to his feet. “Because cats protect their hunting territories.” The guard gnome opened the office door at his approach. “And I allow no one to abuse you but me,” he cast over his shoulder as he walked out the door.


Professor Hortel, all two meters and 30 kilos of him, perched upon a tall stool beside a caldron, a screwdriver hanging in his hand. He regarded the caldron sadly. “I’ve torn that heating element down three times so far, and I can’t find the glitch.” He blew out his cheeks. “I suppose I’ll have to call maintenance. Who knows, someone may show up before the end of the term.” He turned back to Doctor E. “I’m sorry; that’s not what you’re here for, is it?”

“No,“ he rumbled. “More the matter of your little fantasy of flights.”

Hortel blushed and looked sadder. “Yes, that has been a problem. Unfortunately, I have no control of them. I hear a piece of liturgical music and I’m aloft. The Archbishop found it very disconcerting back when I was at Whales’ View.”

The other nodded. “Yes, I’ve noticed that the higher the clergyman, the more likely the startlement at the manifestation of something whose existence he preaches on.” He fingered his mustache thoughtfully. “No other music sets you off then? Say, classical, for instance?”

The Conjurment instructor shook his head. “No, Doctor E, only when it was written with a religious purpose in mind.”

Doctor E abruptly began to whistle “A Mighty Fortress.” Hortel rose into the air. The whistler quickly switched to “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” and he settled back on the stool. “Hail Holy Queen” and into the air. Doctor E brought him is for a landing with “My Old Man’s a Dustman.”

“You see what I mean,” the stork-like man said.

His erstwhile flight controller smiled. “I think this might be a matter for the Athletics Department.”


Sunday, noon, all were present at the dedication, including Professor Hortel seated between two burly members of the mootsball team. Bishop Guash sprinkled holy water over the altar of the new side chapel, the choir broke into Mozart’s “Hallelujah” chorus, and the tall, thin Conjurment instructor appeared lifted into the air by the mootsball player on each side grasping an ankle. After a moment, they drew him back to earth.

After the ceremony, his Excellency took Axgrinnder, the Chancellor, aside. “Frederick, I really must compliment you on the turnout and spirit. Though some of the latter was a bit irregular. I mean the athletes picking up that one instructor and lifting him up. I don’t think I have ever seen the like.” He smiled. “But I do appreciate the spirit. Now, where is the luncheon to be served?”

Friday, August 12, 2011

Missed Lift

by Kat Heckenbach -

The lift doors shut with a quiet hiss as Robynn watched the man—‘droid?—disappear around a corner at the other end of the corridor. She shook her head and jabbed the touch panel again, angry that she’d gotten so distracted and now had to wait on another lift when someone could come by at any moment and throw a fit about her being where she didn’t belong.

Angrier that Denton and Strand had abandoned her…

Angriest because she knew she didn’t dare say a word to them about it. She needed their protection. They were the toughest urchins she knew, besides Ave. But Ave couldn’t be around all the time to stop them—or anyone else—from picking on Robynn. Better to befriend the bullies than be bullied by them. It was a matter of survival.

Tears burned her eyes and she chewed at her lip. It wasn’t her fault she had no home, no parents. So why did she have to be treated like a stray dog?

The metal wall in front of her hummed, and a ping sounded with each change of number above the door. The lift was close. Robynn shifted her weight nervously from one leg to the other. Hurry up, hurry up…

And then movement caught in the corner of her eye. She snapped her head to the side, expecting to see a grown-up, someone ready to scream at her (filthy little urchin!), and threaten to call Level Security. But it was a boy, crossing past the end of the corridor.

She stepped away from the lift doors just as they opened and jogged along the edge of the wall. When she reached the end, she peeked around the corner.

He snuck along, glancing side to side, like he was playing “secret agent.” His clothes were clean, his hair trimmed, and he’d gained a few pounds, but Robynn still recognized him.


What was he doing here? Ave had told Robynn…well, something. It was always something. Excuses for why Gavin never seemed to be around.

Robynn skulked along the adjacent corridor, following as Gavin rounded the next corner. He stopped in front of a door and she ducked behind a support column, pressing her cheek against the cold metal.

The door opened, and Gavin stepped through. A man’s hushed voice said, “You weren’t followed?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re sure? There were some kids poking around earlier.”

“No, sir.”
A grunt, and then the man leaned his head and shoulders out the door, facing away from Robynn. She held her breath as he turned in her direction. It took everything she had not to gasp. It was him—the ‘droid!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Buried Treasure

by H. A. Titus -

Cara rattled the lid on a metal storage container. "Pieter, this one's stuck!"

She heard his footsteps clanging overhead, then Pieter jumped down into the cargo hold, forgoing the ladder, and hunched to avoid banging his head. He wedged his fingers under the lip of the container and pulled hard. After a few jerks, the lid popped open.

Cara peered inside. The container was a jumble of clothes and cables.

"Why are we cleaning again?" she asked, lifting a stained shirt out of the mess with a pinkie finger.

Pieter shrugged, took the shirt, and tossed it on the ever-growing pile of garbage. "The Anchor is due for a clean. It's not like we'll be going anywhere soon."

Cara nodded. One the sensors were installed, Pieter would be allowed to fly as long as he stayed away from hotspots frequented by smugglers. It was just the installation that was taking so long. She reached into the box, jerked out a tangle of cables, and tossed them to the side. Pieter turned to sorting them as Cara dug into the box. More clothes, more wires, more clothes—

"By all the stars in the sky!" she said, pulling out yet another wad of clothing. "How many clothes do you need in space?"

"Oh, half of those were disguises that I never needed." Pieter grinned sheepishly. "I have a weakness for disguises."

"I guess so." Cara looked into the box to see how much more she had to go, and drew a sharp breath. A book sat at the bottom of the container. A print book. An old print book, by the look of it.

She carefully fit her hands around it and drew it out. The soft suede cover was spiderwebbed with tiny cracks. The book was sturdier than she first thought. The pages, though yellow and thin, were sill attached to the binding.

"What's this?" she asked Pieter.
He glanced at it and shrugged. "An old family book my mom gave me. Said it was the only possession left from our ancestor on the generation ship. I've had it buried in my boxes of stuff for years. Never was one for books."

Hmm. Might be worth a look at. First time I've ever gotten the chance to read a print book. Cara put it to the side and continued sorting through the garbage. She'd read it tonight, if she got the chance.

Monday, August 8, 2011


by Joseph H. Ficor -

The Enforcer at the checkpoint, just off the elevator, at Upper Level Six smiled after he cleared Shouhei for entry.

“We’ve been expecting you.” He said while maintaining that ominous smile.

Shouhei just said, “Thank you,” as he passed the still-smiling Enforcer.

The orders that had been printed out at the checkpoint stated that he was to proceed to Stateroom 14. He was there in five minutes.

Two guards, both Peacekeeper Level Twos, stood on either side of the door leading into the stateroom. They wore immaculate navy blue uniforms with white berets and broad white sashes extending from their left shoulders to their right waists.

Shouhei saluted and the salute was returned. The PKL2 on Shouhei’s right inserted Shouhei’s ID card into a portable reader. He showed it to the other PKL2 who just grunted and mumbled something about Shouhei being the one.

The ID card was returned to Shouhei. The door opened and Shouhei entered a large office with white walls and red carpeting. Many abstract paintings hung neatly on the wall. A large luxurious desk made of smoothed Zirconian black coral stood four meters in front of the young Enforcer.

A large man with skin as dark as the desk and wearing a robe of bright orange and red came from behind the desk and greeted Shouhei.

“Welcome,” the man bellowed, “Enforcer Third Class Fiko! I have been looking forward to meeting you for a few months now.”

Shouhei’s training brought him back to his place. He straightened and saluted, but his face betrayed his confusion at the Governor’s greeting.

The Governor just smiled. “My boy, I can see that you do not understand that I’m your benefactor.”

Shouhei’s face betrayed more confusion.

“I am your sponsor. I chose you from the dregs of Adagio to become an Enforcer. You are my act of charity.”

“I’m sorry sir. But I don’t understand. I thought that I was accepted because of my scores on the entrance exam.”

“Don’t be silly,” the Governor said, and laughed. “The test was just a formality. You were already in by my word. You see, I had a small wager with some of the members of my club that I could choose anyone from that waste on Eclectia and sponsor him through the Enforcers. They doubted me, but you proved them wrong…”

Each of Governor’s words was like the beating of a hammer driving a spike into Shouhei’s heart.

“…and my boy, you paid handsomely—two platinums. So I’ve decided as a special reward to make you a member of my personal security detachment. What do you think about that?”

Professionalism—and his faith—prevented him from expressing the words.

Friday, August 5, 2011


by Fred Warren -

John checked the door locks twice, then ripped off his tie and loosened his collar. He was drenched in sweat, and his hands were shaking. Had to be a trick. Gamer’s stunt. The fat slugs are probably laughing at me on the sim-net right now.

He flinched as his cyborg valet slipped into position behind him and began to remove his jacket. “Did you enjoy the party, sir?”


“Shall I turn down your bed?”

“No!” John ran clammy fingers through his hair. “No...All I want right now is a drink.”

“Very well. Your usual vodka?”

“Never mind. I’ll get it myself. Just...go. You’re dismissed.”

He pushed past the valet, who watched with an expression of mild interest as he opened the liquor cabinet. “As you wish. Good night, Mr. Milton.”

“Good ni...Hold it. Wait. When was the last security sweep of my quarters?”

The valet froze and his eyelids fluttered. “Two days ago. No microphones, cameras, or other surveillance devices were found.”

“Good. Has anyone else entered since then?”

“No one but you, sir.”

“Excellent. You may return to your alcove and cycle off for the night.”

“Thank you, sir.”

John shoveled ice into a glass and began to pour. There was a musical tinkling sound as the bottle rattled against its rim. Some of the vodka splashed on the floor. The blue-eyed woman’s final words were still echoing inside his head...

I'm dying, John, and I have no heir. I'm inviting you to take my place. Join us. Become a Dreamer.

No one had ever directly interacted with a Dreamer. No Dreamer had ever manifested an image within the living space of Avenir. Maybe one of his competitors had arranged this little show to trap him somehow, make him look ridiculous. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d tried. He gulped his drink and stared through the window at the bilious face of Eclectia as the liquor burned its way down his throat.

“The invitation has a time limit, John.”

He whirled around. The valet was still standing there, smiling at him.


“Yes, it’s me again.”

John rubbed his eyes. It usually took several drinks for the alcohol to disorient him, but he’d had a few at the party. “I told you to cycle off. Get out of here!”

The valet didn’t move, but his smile widened. “I’m not finished with him yet. I need to be sure you understand what I’m offering you.”

That voice. The wistful lilt and soft soprano tone. Hers.

The glass slipped from John’s hand and shattered on the floor. “Who are you?”

“I am Anya Sherikov, direct descendant of Mikhail Sherikov, Avenir Communications Officer. My family holds command authority over the information systems of this colony. I have unrestricted access to every computer, every commlink, every camera, and,” the valet tapped his head, “every electronic and cybernetic device on the Avenir network, including Eclectia’s undersea cities. Even among the Dreamers, it is a formidable power.”

“But if what you’ve told me is true—and I’m still not convinced this isn’t an elaborate prank—I’d have to surrender my humanity to accept your offer.”

“Only the inconvenient, tiresome parts. You will, of course, have to be integrated into the network, but your body will be kept in perfect health, and you will experience a life infinitely more rich and meaningful than this dull, enclosed existence. You’re languishing here, John. Tell me it isn’t so.”

“I’m not...It’s just that...” John took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. He’d been on the defensive long enough, and he knew better than to negotiate from a position of weakness. “I need proof. All you’ve given me is a fairy story and a few parlor tricks.”

The valet beckoned with a crooked finger. “Follow me.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In Plain Sight

by Walt Staples -

A shiver ran down Reichter’s spine. The great ship was too quiet. With his visor open, the investigating peacekeeper not only heard his own breathing but that of his enforcers, Cooper and Takai. He considered telling Cooper to stop the whistling; he’d been driving the theme to “For a Few More Credits” into the deck since they boarded the liner. Before he could form the words, Takai spoke up, “Coop? Will you stop whistling that? Or at least change the tune.” The outburst was uncharacteristic of the blond giant. Reichter suspected the silence was giving him the creeps too.

“Sorry, Yoshi.” He fell silent. It was rare that the small, dark man didn’t argue.

Reichter came to a decision. “Coop, Yoshi, if you want to, go ahead and turn your internal channels to some music, but keep it low. Turn up the gain on your external mikes; that should let you hear any faint sounds over the music.”

Both nodded and made the adjustments. The notes of the first movement of Raif Von’s “In the Fens” quietly purred in his ear as he followed his own order.

He mentally ticked off what they had. One--lights, atmosphere, gravity, but no ship’s A.I. Two--Avenir Control’s last sailing for the liner was fifteen standard years ago. Three--no cargo manifest or passenger list because it was recertified as a private yacht. Four--the owner and a large number of friends had not been heard from in at least twelve standard years. And five—the biggie—no bodies so far.

They stepped out on a balcony over the promenade deck with its huge pool. Takai remarked, “That’s odd.”

Cooper looked at him. “What’s odd?”

The big man gestured at the pool below. “Most people paint their pools some shade of blue, not purple.”

The other enforcer shrugged. “Maybe it went better with his complexion.” He turned to their superior. “What now, sir?”

Reichter glanced around the balcony, then at the deck below. “Coop, you go down and start checking the promenade. Yoshi and I’ll check these couple of staterooms,” he nodded toward the doors lining the balcony, “then we come down and help you.”

“Yes, sir.” He turned to the grand stairway. As usual, Cooper ran his mouth. “Pretty impressive. I wonder how many credits the guy was pulling down and whose grandmother’s secret he was keeping.” Reichter listened with half an ear as he pressed buttons to dilate the doors, occasionally needing to use the pass-pad built into his gloves’ index fingers. “Whu-wee! Stinks down here and I ain’t even at the bottom yet.”

Takai’s voice sounded in Reichter’s earphones, “What’s it smell like, Coop?”

“Like our compartment the morning after you had tacos. Like an egg gone evil. I—“ There followed a rattling crash.

Reichter called out, “Cooper! Cooper! Report!” He grabbed Takai’s tool belt as the enforcer rushed by. “No! Yoshi, stop!” The peacekeeper’s use of his command voice halted Takai. He stood impatiently as his superior hooked a safety line from the peacekeeper’s belt reel to his belt’s carabiner. “Okay, you lead.” Reichter drew his sidearm. “I’ll cover you.”

“Yes, sir.”

They began to descend the stairway. Cooper lay in a heap at the bottom. A red light on the back of his helmet blinked. “Dead light’s on,” Takai observed matter-of-factly. Reichter knew it was taking all of the big man’s willpower to stay professional. He knew from his own experience, the tears would come later.


Takai coughed about the time the stink hit Reichter’s nose. The peacekeeper grabbed the banister with his free hand and yelled as he hung on, “Yoshi! Up, up! Come back up the stairs!”

The enforcer’s voice was slurred as he spoke between coughs, “It’s okay. The smell’s gone. I…I smell sweet—“

Reichter dropped the side arm and caught hold of the safety line. He pulled mightily and surged up the steps dragging the bigger man. “Get up the stairs, Yoshi! That’s an order!” Takai stumbled along behind. At the top of the stairs, he sat heavily, coughing as tears and mucus ran down his face.

Reichter breathed in and out swiftly, hyperventilating slightly as he flushed his lungs. He leaned over Takai and checked his readouts. “Blood Oxygen,” “Heart Rate,” and “Blood Pressure” were at the lower end of the green, but rising. “Oxygen Intake” went from yellow to green as he asked, “You feeling better, son?”

The younger man wiped at his blond handlebar mustache as he asked, “What happened?”

The peacekeeper’s face was grim. “Something hiding in plain sight and I didn’t think of it.” He put a hand on the enforcer’s shoulder. “Are you okay, now?”

Takai nodded. “I…I think so, sir.”

Reichter unclipped the safety line from his reel from the enforcer’s rig. He then took a line from Takai’s belt reel and hooked it to his own carabiner. “Okay, Yoshi, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to go down and get Coop. When I’ve got him secured to my line, you’ll pull me up while I pull his up. Understand?”

Takai nodded. “Yes, sir.”

The peacekeeper smiled at him. “Good. Okay, now you just sit there and rest until I get him hooked up. Then I’ll give you the high-sign.”

Reichter berated himself as he turned and did what he should have done in the first place—he closed his visor and went on internal atmosphere. He set his sniffer so as to confirm the element he knew he would find below.


Takai broke the silence on the cruiser’s bridge as they headed back to Avenir, “Sir, it wasn’t your fault.”

Reichter smiled sourly. “I doubt, Yoshi, the council will agree with that opinion when we get back to the Cop-Shop. But, thank you all the same.”

The enforcer shook his head. “Hydrogen sulfide. Where did it come from, sir?”

“That fancy fish pond on the promenade deck. It was a swimming pool when the liner was in service. Apparently, the new owner decided to turn it into a huge koi pond. After the circulation stopped when the A.I. packed up, things died in it and it turned stagnant. Eventually, anaerobic bacteria had a field day and the hydrogen sulfide was the result. That purple color of the pool was the little critters themselves.”

“So the gas killed the people?”

The peacekeeper tilted his head and squinted an eye as he considered. “No, probably not. Water recycling shut down with the A.I. The only food left I found was dry stores. I suppose they tried drinking from the pool; that probably did a number in. It must have been very bad for the last ones--there’s all that water sitting there in plain sight, but they know it’ll poison them. That’s probably why they were huddled in the promenade staterooms.” He fingered his beard as he gazed into space. “Yep, in plain sight.”

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Spider in the Chaparral

by Kaye Jeffreys -

Traces of web hung from a branch of one of the trees. Reece stopped his one-rider at a safe distance and searched the small island of grey-green trees in the sea of yellow-grey grasses. Rose won't be happy that a spider has moved into one of her nature projects. He'd come back later with others from the mining camp to flush it out. No one takes on a spider alone.

A cry drifted on the wind from the other side of the chaparral.

Reece unholstered his rifle and made a wide circle around the growth of trees searching it and the rippling grass. There was movement in the shadows of the low hanging branches. Spindly legs of a large spider pulled a rope of a web into the chaparral.

Thirty feet away someone fought, unseen, except for the violent shaking of grass around her.

Weren't lassoing spiders extinct? Yet one methodically hauled in its prey from the cover of the trees.

Reece climbed off his one-rider, counting on the hope that the spider could only lasso one prey at a time. He propped his rifle against his vehicle and located the scythegun under the seat. He pulled it out and fumbled at the switches. He fought to hold the cumbersome thing steady in his trembling fingers.

Slow down and do this right. He forced a steady aim.

The spider hesitated, recalculating.

Reece fired. The scythegun cracked.

A shriek ripped the air.

Then all noise and movement in the chaparral stopped except for the leaves manipulated by the wind.

Reece aimed again at the motionless spider, and waited. He listened with ears deafened by the gun's crack and spider's shriek. The wind shifted and increased though it sounded muffled in comparison to the pounding of his heart.


Collapsed in the beaten down grasses, the nomad didn't stir except for her exhausted breathing.

Reece took a step back and searched the horizon for other nomads. There were none. Very strange. He had to decide if he should help her and break one of their laws or walk away and avoid trouble. So far he knew that you don't touch them, you don't talk to them, and you aren't ever supposed to look at their females. He searched the horizon again expecting to see riders pour over the hills any second. Only wind disturbed the grass.

The webbing wrapped around the girl's ankle had rubbed it raw and bleeding. He could not walk away when a Higher Law compelled him to help.

Never looking directly at her, Reece used an old rag to protect his hand as he grasped the sticky web. He sawed through it with his knife a full two feet away from her foot. Then he stepped back.

She crawled then rose to her feet and limped away through the waves of grasses. Picking up speed to a shakey run, she disappeared over a hill never looking back.

"You're welcome." Wind whipped his words away to parts unknown.

What did he expect? A handshake, a thank you, eye contact?

Reece climbed onto his one-rider and started it up. He had to tell the others that lassoing spiders were not as extinct as they thought.